The effects of long-term oral administration of low doses of caffeine (0.3 g/l) and its metabolites theophylline, theobromine and paraxanthine (each at 0.5 g/l in drinking water) on bicuculline- and pentylenetetrazol (PTZ) -induced seizures and c-fos expression were studied in mice. In addition, adenosine and benzodiazepine receptor density was examined. The plasma levels of the methylxanthines were much higher during the active period at night than during the day. The maximal level of caffeine was 14 μM. Brain theophylline levels (8-13 nmol/g) tended to be higher and more constant than brain caffeine levels in caffeine-consuming mice. Clonic seizures induced by bicuculline (4 mg/kg i.p.) were significantly reduced in severity by 14 day caffeine treatment and mortality was also reduced. Long-term treatment with caffeine metabolites was less effective. The seizures induced by PTZ (60 mg/kg i.p.) were also significantly reduced by long-term caffeine treatment. After bicuculline or PTZ treatment, c-fos mRNA expression was weaker in the cerebral cortex in animals receiving caffeine, irrespective of whether the animals had seizures or not. No significant changes in the binding of adenosine receptor ligands or benzodiazepines were seen after long-term caffeine treatment. These results show that long-term treatment with caffeine in a dose that is commonly seen in humans decreases the seizures induced by bicuculline, and to a lesser extent, those induced by PTZ. This may be related to a decreased neuronal excitability. The effect is due to the combined effects of theophylline, to which caffeine is metabolized in brain, and of caffeine itself, but could not be ascribed to changes in A1 and A2A adenosine or benzodiazepine receptors.